Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bookselling Then and Now

There have been hundreds of news articles and TV spots about changes in the book industry. The three things that have made the biggest difference are the large bookstore chains, online book selling, and ebook publishing.

If you're older than twenty-five, you are scratching your head over the first one.  Haven't there always been big-box bookstores, such as Barnes and Noble?  Nope. Even B&N started small.

Online book sales? Internet sales of paper books were not possible until about fifteen to
eighteen years ago, and not widespread until the Internet rose to ubiquity in the last ten to fifteen years. For those who scoff at these timeframes, remember that not everyone had easy access until more recent years, and there are still parts of the U.S. and Canada that only get Internet through phone lines or satellite communication.

Ebook sales are the new kid on  the block for most readers. The dust has settled into just a couple of predominant formats, and ereaders are relatively simple devices that are fairly easy to learn to use and pretty hard to break. And nothing in paper can beat the prices of many of the ebooks. Of course, I still visit the library almost weekly, but I have taken out my first ebook from a library.

The upshot is that many independent bookstores were driven out of business by the larger stores, online book selling, and ebook publishing. And I helped put them there. I love to wander in the larger stores and I self-publish ebooks--and paperbacks, but those sell only a few hundred copies per year. All but a few of the paperback copies are sold online.

That's not to say that I don't like smaller stores. I almost cried when Danner's went out of business in Muncie, Indiana, and I was a regular patron of the store in my former Iowa town until the owners of the last one could not sell it before they moved. (A fitness business/coffee shop bought the Iowa one, but with far fewer books mixed in with the other businesses, it's far from the same. And they won't carry my books, so I doubly don't count them!) Now I live in Springfield, Illinois, and there is no independent book store. There is a Barnes and Noble, and I'm thankful for that--even  though they won't carry my paperback books either.

Don't think this is a 'gripe blog.' Businesses exist to make a profit. If they don't think an author will contribute to that on the limited shelf space they have, then they won't carry a book. I use the same principle for selling my ebooks. It is worth my time to load the books myself to Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and I would try iTunes if they'd have me (they won't). Luckily for authors, there are book aggregators like Smashwords who accept ebooks into their system and then distribute them to other sellers. They take a cut, of course, but it gets the book to the iTunes, plus the smaller outlets whose systems I'm not willing to take the time to learn.

All of these thoughts ran  through my brain cells yesterday when I read a New York Times blog on Helpful Definitions for Modern Authors. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, which makes it a sometimes humorous read. Here's a short segment.

Your Agent: Acts as Book’s Editor.
Your Editor: Acts as Book’s Publisher, handling how it will be packaged and marketed.
Your Publisher: Creates Book’s mold ahead of time, insofar as it curates the existing market into which book must fit. (Additional duty: being dumbfounded by that market.)

When it comes to writing (and reading) we live in a very different world from our parents or even ourselves of twenty years ago. It is a more democratic one. I have sold tens of thousands of books because I decided to do it. There was no three to six-month wait for rejections before moving on to the next potential agent or publisher. There was also no publisher's editor, and if you get a good one they do improve a book.

However, look again at the definition of a Book Publisher. I have a couple of very successful author friends who self-publish more now because a twenty-something book publishing company editor wanted to dumb down their books for "today's readers," and then wondered at lower sales than prior books.

What is constant is authors' support of one another and independent book stores. That's why book stores were in so many stories about this year's Small Business Saturday, a day in which shoppers are encouraged to use their shopping dollars to support local small businesses. USA Today has a great article on readers' love of independent book stores and their role in Small Business Saturday.

Now that I live in a town with no independent book store, I've had to get creative. Another author and I do a table at a nearby arts festival, and we have a booth in a Springfield gift shop. As I get more familiar with Illinois, I'll find book stores in other towns. There will always be people who love to read, it's just a question of finding them in the new age of book publishing.

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